You know who we take for granted? Tom Hanks. And I include myself in this - at the time I write this review, I'm also sorting through my various Best of 2015 year-end musings, and I have not once thought of mentioning him as one of the year's best actors, despite how utterly arid Best Actor has been as a category. But now I return to my notes written right after I saw Bridge of Spies, Hanks's fourth turn under the direction of Steven Spielberg, and this was the first thing I wanted to say to myself: "Don't you DARE forget that Tom Hanks was fucking brilliant in this. And you will forget."

Spielberg, for that matter, is also pretty easy to take for granted, as is Bridge of Spies itself. For here in the thick of the 2015 awards season, the film feels like an utter afterthought, proficient and pleasant and quite invisible. Yet it also feels weirdly like this is one of the only prestige dramas of the year's final quarter that's definitely still going to be around 20 or 25 years from now. These feelings are linked. Bridge of Spies is a work of elegant classicism as made by a director without a trace of desire to prove anything to anybody ever again; it's not involved in any special pleading for our attention, because it's far too confident to give a damn if it impresses us.

The film is based on the true story of New York lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks), an assistant to Chief Justice Robert Jackson at the 1945 Nuremberg Trials, who in 1957 unsuccessfully defended British-born Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) against charges of espionage. This deeply thankless job that earned Donovan the public thanks of Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren for demonstrating America's commitment to justice for all. Donovan and Abel's paths crossed again when the lawyer was tapped by the CIA to negotiate a trade with the Soviet Union: in 1960, the Soviets shot down a spy plane, and in 1962 Donovan traveled to Berlin to work out the details by which American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) would be swapped for Abel. This exchange took place on the Glienicke Bridge, which would in the remaining years of the Cold War become a customary place for such exchanges, earning it the nickname "Bridge of Spies", and there you have it.

There is an immense amount of stuff packed into that paragraph I just shared with you, and if there is one overriding problem with Bridge of Spies, it's that the movie can't find an elegant way to present all of it. The script by Matt Charman, revised by Joel & Ethan Coen, is at the very least structurally messy; "a structural nightmare" might be getting closer to it, but it's not fair to be that hostile to a movie this pleasurable to watch. Basically, there's an entire movie's worth of content involved in Donovan's futile but noble defense of Abel, there's an entire movie's worth of content involved in Donovan's Berlin negotiations, and the script's solution to combining these two movies is simply to place them next to each other, complete unto themselves. It's all kinds of lumpy, and it's dire for the film's pacing - at 141 minutes, I can't imagine how a shorter Bridge of Spies would even succeed in being coherent, but there's no doubting every frame of that running time while it's going on. And coherence is arguably a problem anyway: at the very least, the film telescopes that five-year history ruthlessly, giving the impression that it all takes place in the span of about six months.

Granting that, virtually everything else about Bridge of Spies is terrific enough that the screenplay woes are surprisingly not that much of a problem. "Virtually" in that two things which are usually reliable as the sun rising and setting in Spielberg films are rather distinctly not-great: one is Thomas Newman's score (Spielberg regular John Williams was in poor health and could work on either this or Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but not both), which starts out tremendously strong - after something like a half-hour of silence, the score rumbles up with a perfectly slithery motif accompanying a rain-soaked foot chase - and then proceeds to get worse and worse. It bottoms out in the film's last scene, a bit of contrived sentiment that continues the bafflingly persistent trend of 21st Century Spielberg films to end on their worst moments, but which a sufficiently thorny music cue could have redeemed. Instead, Newman doubles down on the gloppy Rockwellian Americana, making it worse than Spielberg ever could have on his own. The other thing is Janusz Kamiński's cinematography, which in fairness is perfectly fine. If this was the first Spielberg/Kamiński collaboration you ever saw (and I'm sure that for somebody, it is) I don't suppose you could rightfully have a problem with it. But Christ, the whole shafts of light through windows into dusty rooms aesthetic has run out of gas, and the sensation of a one-size-fits-all aesthetic makes it hard to pretend like that aesthetic fits Bridge of Spies particularly well, or to an especially insightful end (though his utterly shameless lighting in the climactic bridge sequence itself is snazzy and great).

But when it's clicking, the film can be stunningly good. Spielberg's direction mixes tony prestige movie stateliness with a good deal of grubby spy movie mechanics, that give the film a hell of a charge on a scene-by-scene basis: the interlude with the spy plane is a great vignette of techno-thriller action, that same foot chase is a great noir setpiece, and the bridge handover is legitimately tense even though the whole movie is predicated on the fact that it had to play out successfully.The Adam Stockhausen production design, contrasting the snug homes of the U.S. with the austere halls of power, and contrasting both of those with the run-down fatigue of Berlin in the '60s, and contrasting all of that with the sickly inhuman precision of East German offices, is greatly impressive, providing a visual flipbook of Cold War iconography. The film sacrifices no realism, but it looks like a heightened storybook version of the period too - it's something of a compendium of pop culture representations of the spaces it visits, never pretending it's not a movie, but in the sense that studio-era Hollywood films never pretended not to be movies. And for all I can complain about Kamiński's lensing being obvious and boring, it's patently true that these sets are framed and lit to great effect, and the action staged in such a way to take maximum advantage of the mood generated by each of the sets.

What's even better about the film is the way it plays with unfiltered nostalgia, while also asking itself questions about that nostalgia (part of the reason that the wholly straightforward final scene is all the more aggravating). Donovan is obviously a paragon of All-American Manly Virtue, but part of the film's neat trick is setting him in a wholly cynical world, which Spielberg plays up with just the right sense of dry detachment. Rylance thrives on the script's detached irony in building Abel (he's the character who seems to have the most Coen DNA, though I do not know what their specific contribution consisted of), and the straightfaced bitter comedy in watching the three different governments involved grind through their machinery is perfectly sardonic and lovely. This is, in a way, a retread of the territory Spielberg already explored in Lincoln - plush Americana cut with a vein of toxic realpolitik - though sorely lacking that film's ticking clock propulsion or heightened literary style. But it still works well here.

Hanks, more than anything, is the film's primary weapon: his amiable persona has rarely to never been used more tactically, either by the actor or his director. The fascinating thing about the performance is the way that Hanks unhesitatingly makes Donovan an idealist, but instead of that giving him the passionate nobility of, say, Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it generally makes him quite miserable. He exudes, at all points, the aura of someone who would very much like to be freed from the compulsion to do the right thing, which leaves him frigid, sleepless, and bogged down with a persistent cold that Hanks plays up with maximum annoyance in that "the more I pretend it's not a big deal, the more you can tell that it's a big deal" way. It's not showy acting, but it's surprisingly complex, and it's at the heart of the film's ambivalent relationship to patriotism, duty, and the American ideals of the '50s. This is a film about the greatness America can achieve that signally understands that this is greatness America rarely does achieve, and with a reasonable sense of why. It's not a flawless trip to get to that point, but the weariness and optimism that punctuate all of the film's most important scenes make it pretty clear what's going on. It's a celebration of American virtue with the thought "but on the other hand..." hovering over every word and deed, and for all its limitations, it's one of the few genuinely brainy Oscarbait films of the year.